If there's an emerging pop star primed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, it's Ellie Goulding. While her signature song "Lights" was slowly climbing the Hot 100 this past year (peaking at No. 2), the English songstress wasn't content to simply bask in the glory of its 40-plus week run. Instead, Goulding plotted her next move. Along with producer Jim Eliot ( Kylie Minogue, Ladyhawke), she retreated to her native Herefordshire, a pastoral county near the Welsh border, to record her much-anticipated follow-up, "Halcyon" (due Oct. 9 via Cherrytree/Interscope).
"I think everyone thought it was recorded in a big studio somewhere, in LA or something," Goulding confesses. "After 'Lights,' I wanted to reground myself and record somewhere really quiet and peaceful. (It's) just a place I could really connect myself with again."
And connect she did. "Halcyon" affirms the 25-year old Goulding is ready to take the next step into pop stardom. Where debut LP "Lights" was rooted in synthpop and EDM, "Halcyon" is a pop album built around its leading lady. Goulding's majestic vocals drive nearly every song on the new long player, though the piano flourishes and grandiose, pummeling percussion aren't far behind. Lyrically, Goulding's words are just as heavy as the beats she's belting them over. They're constantly about falling in and out of love, longing, feeling, needing. They're the sorts of lyrics that leave enough to the imagination of the listener, yet sound devotedly personal to their writer.
It was during a trip to Ireland that Goulding found her muse. The emotional literary works of Patti Smith and Haruki Murakami proved inspirational, as did Goulding's guitar - the only instrument she employed during the writing process.
"You notice what you're writing a lot more with just a guitar because you've got nothing to cover up what you're singing about," Goulding says. "I can get really affected by films, too. I cry a lot. All of that stuff has made me the lyricist I am. I get really strong, visual imagery in my head. I think that's what contributes to how I write my lyrics."
Considering the lyrical weight of "Halcyon," its lead single "Anything Could Happen" might strike listeners as a bit of a surprise. Goulding thinks of the album as a journey from dark to light, and the song is certainly a glimpse into the bright end of that tunnel - its most hopeful, affirming moment. It's already seen heavy television exposure via the Beats Electronics commercial it accompanies, reminding audiences that although 2010's "Lights" is still holding strong on the charts, Goulding seems to have much more in store.
When fans finally get a taste of "Halcyon," there's a chance they'll liken it to another British act with a flair for the dramatic - Florence & the Machine. There's a pounding, thumping, almost tribal feel to highlights like "Don't Say a Word" and "My Blood," which reflect the energy and aesthetic Ms. Welch explored on her first two albums, particularly last year's "Ceremonials."
Then there's a riveting cover (of Active Child's hypnotic 2011 cut "Hanging On"), slick arena pop ("Figure 8"), and the sort of teary-eyed ballads that could have been written just after one of Goulding's gut-wrenching film experiences ("Dead in the Water," "I Know You Care"). Listening to "Halcyon" can be a demanding, emotionally draining task, though it's worth every step of the journey.